Stokelore is a monthly series, which features some of the best writers in the sport celebrating and analyzing various aspects of surf culture, history and travel. Dave Parmenter’s piece below, which originally appeared in a ’94 SURFER magazine, was the first look at a zone that has become more accessible and popular over the years. Check back regularly for stories worth reading.
Words by David Parmenter
Manuel spent his last dawn digging his own grave. The sandstorm had ended with an eerie suddenness late in the night, almost arbitrarily, as if a vengeful god had grown tired of that particular torture and was casting about for a new method. The jackals seemed closer then, their wails amplified by the empty ringing stillness. Finally, toward sunrise, the fog coasted in from the southwest and muffled their mournful retreat back into the hinterland behind the towering sand dunes.
Manuel drank off the fog by wringing the dampened square of canvas into his mouth. A pitiful few drops of brackish water, soaked up instantly by a bloodstream thick and sluggish after five days of unbearable thirst. But it was enough to keep his throat from fusing shut and a little strength seeped into his limbs. Strength to dig.
A lone castaway after his ship had torn its bottom to shreds on some fog-shrouded offshore reef, Manuel was just another of the growing ranks of doomed sailors cast up on the alien shores of southwestern Africa. As the Portuguese began pushing their barques south of the Horn of Africa in the mid-15th century, they ran into a welter of fog, wind and currents that seemed to work in malevolent collusion to strip timber from keels and flesh from bone. Manuel dug and thought how it was odd what finally made man give up hope. Vanity. His arm had been lacerated on barnacles during the struggle ashore and now, days later, was streaked with angry, suppurating sores. Gangrene. The realization struck him that even if by some miracle he was saved immediately, he would lose his arm, and the thought of being less than a whole man withered his resolve.
Not that there was any hope of being saved. The coast unspooled for hundreds of miles either way; a brutal empire of sand dunes and drifting fog, unrelieved by even the slightest trace of vegetation. The only water came from the morning fog each night once the daily sandstorms died. The beach was littered with seal skulls and mangled bits of pelt. At dusk, the jackals and hyenas would begin skulking out to the sea colony on the headland, and he would hear the horrifying cries of the seal pups being dragged away from their mothers, followed by the grunts and snuffling of the dogs as they set upon their prey. Manuel could hear the bones crunching in the oversize jaws, and he spent the nights shivering in a hollow at the base of a small dune, trying to drown out the slaughter by repeating prayers and psalms over and over, aloud, until his voice cracked or he shivered himself asleep.
Manuel had always been a devoutly religious man. For the first day or so as a castaway, he had brandished his childlike faith as one would hold a cross to a vampire. But now, with his gangrenous, evil-smelling arm drawing the jackals nearer and nearer in their death-vigil, he had a sudden and terrifying glimpse at the true workings of life, a lightning-flash illumination of a nightmarish charnel house that had lain hidden beneath the façade of incense and salvation and braying church organs.
He finished digging into the side of the dune. It was big enough to crouch in, and he had piled up the sand in a loose crest overhead so the wind would blow it over him. Not much time left. His throat had begun to glue shut, and he had heard when a man’s eyes glimmered with bright light it was over soon after. As long as the jackals didn’t get to him, Manuel thought, anything but that. He crouched in the hole and hugged his knees, drained of his last energy, and waited for the lights to sear his vision. After a while the wind came up strong from the southwest, scraping away the fog and blasting curling wraiths of sand along the beach. The fine, powdery crest over Manuel showered down around his feet in little sprinkles at first, then mounds. By midafternoon, the little grotto was half-filled. The sand weighed against Manuel’s chest, but he was far, far away in an impossibly green garden where water poured from fountains with the sweet tones of music. The sand blew all that night, and all through the next day.
I was sitting out in the lineup, alone, at a perfect left point on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, popping kelp bulbs and daydreaming between sets. The sun was going down and I was trying, with as much empathy as I could muster, to imagine what it must have been like to be suddenly flung onto these shores after some disaster at sea and to realize the utter hopelessness of it. I pondered the riddle of the “crouching skeleton,” a man found buried alive very close to where I was surfing, hunched in a little womb-like grave. Most of the books dealing with the shipwreck lore of the Skeleton Coast found it to be a mystery. They concluded he must have been buried in a sandstorm while taking shelter in a hole. Just another riddle amidst hundreds on this coast.
Then I saw the jackal. He was on a little rise at the top of the point 30 yards away, just sitting on his haunches staring at me. At first I thought he was curious, with his pricked-up ears and comically serious stare. In our culture, generations removed from real wilderness, we anthropomorphize animals. Dogs “smile,” lions wear crowns and bears are cute, cuddly things that bounce on our laundry.
It didn’t take me long to understand that the jackal was sizing me up as potential prey, scanning through the predator checklist for some sign that I might fit the profile: old, young, weak, sick, alone? Even though there was absolutely no danger, it gave me a shiver to be considered as food, as well as a little insight into why a man might prefer premature burial to being jackal fodder like the countless torn seals that carpeted every square foot of shoreline for miles around the rookery at the cape.
Carnage is what the Skeleton Coast is all about. The name is derived from the profusion of bones strewn along a 400-mile swath on the northern coast of Namibia. From literally any random vantage point, some sort of pitiful remains can be seen — bleached whale ribs, broken-backed ships, piles of seal bones, and perhaps the tangled skeleton of some hapless castaway who made it ashore and died wishing he hadn’t.
I was pretty keen on making it to shore myself. The last set of the day hit the outer indicator at Robbenspunt and filed down the half-mile point toward my lineup, the second perfect left point in a 2-mile stretch. With a rookery of 100,000 Cape fur seals just up the point, there’s a pretty good chance of some sort of encounter with a white shark. Also, lions have been known, in years of drought, to sneak up on the seals as they sleep and have a little high-cholesterol snack. Most surfers live in a smug cocoon of invulnerability, and why not. With a good car in view, a jerrycan of water, a wetsuit, Swiss Army knife, duct tape and a little common sense, surfers are practically immortal. But with the sun all but gone, surfing alone without a leash, the nearest town 100 miles away, I began to feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and shivered to some involuntary primordial warning surging down my spine. A quarter-mile down the point, Lance had lit up the car as he packed away the gear — a cozy sphere of warmth and safety. I was tired of loitering in the food chain. The first wave of the set approached, a perfect 5-foot wall that roped down the point for 200 yards. I caught it, pulled my feet out of Triassic Park as I stood, and glided toward the 20th Century.
“Puff Adder Bites Jogger Three Times!” screeched the bold headline. An African newsboy stood in the median, one foot on his bundle of papers to keep them from blowing away in the Cape Town gale. I’m in South Africa all right, I thought. Fresh off the plane from a mild-mannered summer in California, I couldn’t reckon with this bizarre world where raging winter storms spun out of the southern ocean still tasting of Antarctica, and poisonous snakes vented their reptilian angst on innocent joggers.
“With the sun all but gone, surfing alone without a leash, the nearest town 100 miles away, I began to feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and shivered to some involuntary primordial warning surging down my spine.”
It had been five years since I had been to Cape Town. Much had changed, and local surfer/photographer Lance Slabbert gave me the rundown as we tore through the gloom that creamed into the sloping sandstone cake layers of the famous Table Mountain. South Africa could well be the most beautiful country in the world, especially for a surfer. I fell in love with it long before I’d even been there, enchanted by Bruce Brown’s voice-over in Endless Summer: “If you want to be alone in South Africa, you’re welcome to do so.” That and his vistas of empty highways, buzzing veldt and huge sand dunes hiding perfect pointbreaks in sphinx-like secrecy. When California was all about black beaver-tail wetsuits, circling the wagons against outsiders, buying the “right” to surf the Ranch, lifeguards and blackball, South Africa promised a new, adventurous melding of archetypes: Allan Quatermain crossed with Kevin Naughton, a fresh romantic offshoot from the tired old roots of Waikiki beach boys and Santa Monica misanthropes.
But now, South Africa seems to be in sad decline. And it’s nothing like what you think, not nearly as simple as your “Free Mandela” bumper sticker on the ol’ Volvo. Say what you will about apartheid, injustice and civil rights from your lofty American pulpit, but unless you’ve been there, you have no opinion. South Africa is an antipodean America, with common bloodlines. In both cases, whites migrated away from bureaucracy into native tribes with Bible-thumbing arrogance. The difference, and the real reason South Africa is in the international doghouse, is that our grim deeds were done long before CNN and bumper stickers.
Arm the Apaches with dirt-cheap AK-47s, waggle some Fervent Insurgency Dogma in front of them and basically you’ve got South Africa in 1993. Driving around the outskirts of a city like Cape Town, snipers take occasional potshots at passing motorists. Bridges and overpasses are approached with dread, as terrorists have taken to hurling bricks into oncoming windshields. The N-2 freeway out to the airport has been dubbed “Hell Run,” as it passes near a township with an apparently limitless quarry of bricks. It’s Super Mario Cape Town, with everyone zooming through the narrow, hilly lanes, dodging Koopas and Goombas, seemingly always in a manic rush to reach home — in most cases pastoral whitewashed Cape Dutch cottages that belie surveillance and alarm systems that would rival Fort Knox.
The second largest growth industry in South Africa is home protection: guns, alarms, video monitors, window bars. The largest is getting the hell out. The business sections of the newspapers are flooded with immigration ads entreating South Africa’s best and brightest (and richest) to move overseas to more stable havens like Toronto, Sydney or Laguna Beach, where if a snake bit you it would probably be only once, and at least you could sue somebody or sell the screen rights.
Of course, there’s always Namibia. Lots of people were moving up into that newly independent country, which was formerly a sort of territory of South Africa. I had stopped at Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, on a flight years ago, leaving me with the impression that Namibia was 300,000 square miles of Bakersfield. But Lance had been up there on a surf trip recently, and his description of quaint colonial seaside towns, stately dunes and lonely left pointbreaks sounded much more sporting than the usual safari to J-Bay, which has become more and more a Surf City. I could picture Derek Hynd patrolling that fabled lava point, notebook in hand, wallowing in self-imposed exile, seeking his canine brethren. Also, Pro World was due to arrive soon, and that alone was a good reason to head off in the opposite direction.
Leaving Cape Town and driving to the Skeleton Coast is the spiritual equivalent of going on safari from Dana Point to Vancouver in 1936. The Namibian coastline is roughly the same length as that of California, but with twice the total area. Namibia means “land of no people,” and even then most of the million or so inhabitants live in landlocked Windhoek or a narrow swale of arable land along the northern border near Angola. The coast is basically empty.
Just a few hours out of Cape Town, the highway is deserted. Small towns are spaced farther and farther apart, finally giving way to forlorn, ramshackle settlements that seem to be nothing more than concessions to the shortcomings of the average gas tank. There are few towns on the coast from the cape all the way to Angola, as there are only a handful of decent harbors. Most can only be reached via a 50- or 100-mile sidetrack on a graded dirt road. Heading to the coast off the N-7, the main north-to-south highway, these secondary roads can be traveled for hours without seeing another vehicle.
It seemed completely normal, then, when we pulled up at the legendary Elands Bay on a gorgeous, offshore, 6-foot morning and there was no one out. There were a few guys camped next to their car, trying to work up a mojo next to a crude fire pit. They were in no rush. I got to fulfill a boyhood dream by surfing Elands as good as it gets for almost an hour, completely alone. It’s a world-class left point often described as a flopped-negative cousin to Jeffrey’s Bay. But surfing in Atlantic waters on the west coast is a far cry from the comparative warmth of Jeffreys Bay 400 miles away in the more temperate Indian Ocean. At Elands, the water was like cold Santa Cruz, about 53 degrees. The icy Benguela Current socks a stiff uppercut punch into the guts of southwest Africa, sweeping in chilled water from the Antarctic netherworld. The water temperature is rarely over 55 degrees. Thick and pulpy with upwelled plankton, the increased water density feels “faster,” and the illusion of speed is increased as you fly through the tangle of bull kelp, the muscular bulbs flashing by like the blurred white lines on a highway.
There were 300 miles more of promising coastline before the Namibian border. On the map, the coast was kinked with the telltale squiggles of one left point after another. But three-quarters of this coastline is the domain of the infamous De Beers Diamond Company, which invented localism 60 years before Dora first kicked his board at a kook wearing cut-offs. Security measures and treatment of trespassers is rumored to be harsh, sometimes beyond the law. All things being equal, I’d rather face some grumpy, walrusine “owner” at the Ranch than an X-ray and sigmoidoscope at gunpoint.
Here is the world’s last great reserve of temperate climate surf, virtually untapped from Lambert’s Bay to Walvis Bay. Seven hundred miles of points, reefs and beaches have been a sperrgebiet or “forbidden region” since Duke Kahanamoku was about 6 years old. The same antediluvian alchemy that made this the richest diamond field in the world also gave it limitless surf potential, with alluvial headlands and ancient, upthrust marine terraces forming a serrated coastline the length of Baja.
Lance had arranged for us to visit a 50-mile chunk of one of the mines. After filling out security-clearance forms and waiting around a few days, we were allowed to enter as “official visitors.”
“Three-quarters of this coastline is the domain of the infamous De Beers Diamond Company, which invented localism 60 years before Dora first kicked his board at a kook wearing cut-offs. Security measures and treatment of trespassers is rumored to be harsh, sometimes beyond the law.”
In one short afternoon, even with our limited access to the beaches, we catalogued a half-dozen world-class waves easily comparable to the Margaret River region of Western Australia. Headland points were spaced at regular intervals, often flanked by grinding reef peaks or wedging beach break — the Ranch if Wayne Lynch designed it. Toward evening, we surfed a right point that was like a high-voltage Supertubes. Eight to 10 feet and no way of knowing if it had been surfed before. In the middle of the bay was a gaping left that poured over a shallow web of sandstone reef. From talking to people in the area, we’re fairly certain some lucky guys surf on this coast occasionally. If you don’t mind surfing alone in the kind of chilly waters that scream “White shark!” like a berserk Ouija board, and if you don’t object to the odd X-ray and personal body search, this place is for you.
The farther we got from Cape Town, the deeper we plunged into Afrikaner territory. The accents grew thicker and thicker and the food more indigestible. Afrikaners are looked down upon as provincial rednecks by the English, but they really are the heart and soul of all that is good and bad in South Africa. The Afrikaans language sounds like variety show mimicry of Colonel Klink, a harsh-sounding derivative of Dutch and Flemish. “Thank you” sounds exactly like “buy a donkey,” and “please,” or “assebleif,” sounds like some arcane sexual password. And “drankewinkle,” or “bottle shop,” sounds like some monstrous derivative of the great Australian party trick “spitting the winkle,” but let’s not give them any ideas.
It was a Friday evening when we crossed the border into Namibia, and Afrikaner families were flooding over from their spartan farm towns, heading into the parks and reserves of Namibia like beleaguered Norteamericanos stumbling into Baja for a little Margaritaville respite.
Afrikaners are great carnivores. Waiting in line at the border for our passports to get stamped, I exchanged pleasantries with a family who had seen our surfboards on the car. I told them we were going up to the Skeleton Coast to do a little surfing, and they looked at me with that forced grin used around the world to tolerate eccentrics and crackpots. They were heading up to Windhoek on a pilgrimage to see “1,000 Meters-O-Meat,” an attempt to cook the world’s biggest shish kebab at a rugby stadium. A black day indeed for the slower cattle in the herd, and a red-letter day for Clark W. Griswolds everywhere.
Some will contend that man’s greatest achievement is language or flight or the printing press. But on a bone-rattling, kidney-torquing journey into the Namibian outback, you’d swear that the pinnacle of human left-brain accomplishment is duct tape. After 750 miles of jouncing along at 85 mph, everything not welded in place was working loose. Mysterious little bolts and screws littered the floorboard, cassette tapes warbled and choked, and the peanut butter never had to be stirred. This was the Skeleton Road, a bitumen artery through the middle of Namibia, ramrod straight at times for hundreds of miles. Twice a day, a town would appear ahead, wavering in mirage, with osterizing dustdevils scraping across the flinty, rust-orange gravel plains. A gas station, some sad little plywood shanties and gaily painted donkey carts: a Baja fish camp plopped down in an artist’s conception of Mars.
There are two strategies for occupants of the desert. Hole up and accept the worst, or migrate. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world; its inhabitants have had some 80 million years to get their acts together. Ants lick the dew off one another’s backs, lions scavenge dead whales along the littoral, and the welwitschia, the bizarre “living fossil plant,” lives up to 2,000 years on the wafting fog.
The few surfers in Namibia have had to adapt to a brutal environment that is a long, long way from Polynesia Idyll. The cold water creates a semipermanent canopy of fog, up to 340 days a year. The water is made colder by the prevailing southwesterly trades, a chill rasp of wind that churns up the cooler, nutrient-rich water from the deep, and gives the beaches a briny red-tide smell. The only surf not completely blown to rags by the southwesterlies are the twin left points of Robbenspunt, a hundred miles from the nearest population. Beachbreak, beachbreak everywhere, and not a peak to surf. One day, we scrutinized 50 miles of coast, and although it was a sunny, offshore, 4-foot day, and I applied the dogged search pattern used to survive 17 years of similar cruelty on California’s Central Coast, we didn’t find one decent peak.
By this time, Lance had imported his Performance Seals to add what magazine editors call “color contrast.” I’m not a very colorful or even modern surfer. I have no tattoos, and if my fins slide out I feel a great shame. Our Performance Seals were very nice kids from Durban: Carl and Paul. Like almost all young South African surfers, they were polite, well-behaved gremmies who put their labels right where their sponsors told them and phoned home twice a week. They also had that unique adolescent ability to fold up and shut down like C-3PO and sleep anywhere at the slightest hint of downtime.
And we had plenty of downtime on the 100-mile drive up to Robbenspunt. Camping nearby was out of the question. Aside from the sandstorms and nightly jackal and hyena sorties, there was the biting, litterbox stench of 100,000 seals stewing in their own effluvia. Technically, it’s illegal to surf the top point because the cape is a seal reserve, and the park wardens don’t want the seals “startled.” I don’t see the sense in this, as seals are like cows: they’re permanently startled. Anyway, the marine bovines have staked out the whole top of the point and swim through the lineup in such thick herds that the waves are literally warped into sagging ruin. A 6-foot wave will peel through this pinniped Ganges for hundreds of yards, finally elbowing its way into an uncontaminated final run down the point, which is still twice the length of a good Rincon wave.
Deeper into the bay is another point next to some settlement that appears to have been built piece by piece from shipwreck detritus. Until recently an old German caretaker would sit out on the porch with a shotgun to keep away pesky surfers. When we arrived the place was deserted. We didn’t see another surfer in two weeks of surfing here. Four to five-foot lines peeled over the delicately ribbed sand bottom, translucent green in the settled calm of the inner bay. Not a gnarly Indonesian racetrack, but not some snail’s-pace California point, either. Surfers have been hounding Scorpion Bay for 15 years without surf as good as it gets here monthly.
In the winter months, high-pressure areas fatten and bulge in the interior of southern Africa, occasionally steepening to form a hot, dry offshore wind not unlike the Santa Anas in California. This is the dreaded Namibian ostwind, an unnerving, grating rasp that scrapes up sand, melds into a gritty furnace blast and brings life to a standstill for days at a time. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, and the sandstorms are so thick that you often can’t see 20 yards ahead. During ostwinds, a rime of fine dust covers every surface in even the most tightly sealed home. Cars have their number plates scoured to illegibility. Teeth take on an unpleasant abrasive sensation. Tempers flare at stoplights, and after a week under the Vulcan canopy, the suicide rate always soars.
Driving around in a sandstorm, we watched huge rooster tails of sand curling off the crests of giant dunes being torn into tornadic rotors. Flung instantly into the sea, they flailed into the spume of oncoming waves, blotching the white spray into a brown haze. Sea birds fluttered in awkward sideslip with grimaces of strained concentration. Driving through town, Lance had to jerk the car out of the path of one stout old Germanic matron who had wobbled into the road from either heatstroke or sand-blindness, walking with that erratic pattern that on the savanna says, “Fair game!”
In the desert, time is measured on a vaster scale than the clocks and calendars of man. Standing on the ridge of the highest dune for miles, my jacket and pants cracking in the wind like a luffing mainsheet, I watched a sandstorm swirl over thousands of acres of trackless dunes. Casting aside the measure of our pitiful 70 or so years on the planet, a deceitful benchmark, I could see this desert as a sort of antimatter ocean. Even on our day-to-day clock, dunes will crest and “break” like an ocean wave when they get too steep, sending out a roar from the friction. How would the desert appear from the vantage point of thousands of years of time-lapse photography? Wouldn’t it appear to swell and crest in the ceaseless wind side by side with the Atlantic?
People from rich, green lands have always had to reconcile their mortality when confronted by the desert. Here a plant may live 2,000 years, diamonds are forever, and a man’s tracks may last a thousand years on the delicate gravel plains. In the rain forest, things topple hourly and decay under a riot of growth and change, but here in the desert, the ebb and flow of an entire race of people is a mere second hand on the geologic clock that marks the passage of waterless eons and patient, creeping dunes.
The Bushmen of the nearby Kalahari Desert have acquired from their desolate origins a pragmatic grasp of mortality not unlike that learned on the Skeleton Coast amid the poking ribs of men and ships long dead. To them, there is no afterlife, no trumpets blaring at Pearly Gates. “When we die, we die,” they shrug. “The wind blows away our footprints and that is the end of us.”
Editor’s note: Dave Parmenter has worn a lot of hats in the sport and industry of surfing, including being a Top 16 ASP pro surfer, head judge for the NSSA in the 1980s, writer for all the major surf magazines since 1981, co-founder of the standup paddle board industry, and commentator on the surfing world with an eye cocked toward historical context. With roots as a backyard shaper from 1975, Parmenter has for decades been a technical writer covering all aspects of surfboard design and construction, including heading up the surfboard design wing at the very first online surf magazine, Swell.com back in 1999. Parmenter also wrote one of the only surf stories to make it into the prestigious “Greatest American Sportswriting” collection in 1994. (“Alaska: The Land That Duke Forgot,” which we’ll be featuring next month in the Stokelore series.) Check out his website for boards — and some more articles by Parmenter.